At the airport bookstore you buy magazines and overpriced water and gum. Because you'll be flying in an out-of-time zone you feel unashamed reaching for the trashy magazines with horrible bleating headlines like "Worst Beach Bodies of the Century!" Only your seatmate will know your secret appetite for trash.
You feel optimistic and excited. In only a short night's time, you will be on another continent, and on this flight you're determined to sleep and then wake up refreshed and ready to head into the city and explore. You've resolved to heed the internet's advice for a good flight:
- Avoid alcohol
- Hydrate frequently
- Practice relaxation exercises
Miraculously, you've been upgraded and you lift your eyes toward the heavens to thank the Travel Gods. This is going to be the best flight ever, like the old days of glamorous travel. Your fellow travelers will have dressed for the occasion and you will dine on real flatware and then be able to recline your seat into a luscious bed. Now it's a five-star, luxury yoga retreat.
"Miss, would you like a glass of champagne or orange juice?"
The internet recommended the orange juice, but circumstances dictate that you will enjoy every perk available to you: "Champagne please." Your cells begin to shrivel and dehydrate even as you utter the words.
You unpack the little goody bag that's been offered by the airline. Thin socks, a tiny tube of toothpaste, a mint. But any swag is good swag.
Settled into your fancy seat you watch the march of life. Children galumph, happily unaware of the discomfort and boredom that await them on the flight ahead. Mothers, on the opposite end of the awareness spectrum, already look weary. Backpackers, as oblivious as the children, smile, smacking people on the head with their packs as they file past. Professionals look loopy from airport lounge cocktails, and they will continue to relentlessly work on their anesthesia throughout the flight.
A particularly harried, but well-dressed family comes to a stop by your seat. The little boys in matching blue Polos with tiny upturned collars are smoothed by their mother and installed in two Business Class seats in front of you. "Now be good for Mommy." A daughter with a scarily lifelike doll is seated next to her mother across the aisle, and the father maneuvers by you to claim the window seat next to you.
The wife, eyeing her husband with an angrily curled lip, makes a grand show of lifting her Louis Vuitton travel bag into the overhead compartment by herself, her armful of bangles clanging like a war bell. The husband is already mentally cocooned, but the wife is still jangling her bracelets waiting for his acknowledgment.
"Do you want to switch seats so you can be next to your family?" You hopefully ask your seatmate in his cocoon.
"Oh, no, Dennis prefers the window seat!" shrieks the wife in response.
"Or, I could…" you trail off, knowing that you have been designated the human buffer for a warring husband and wife.
Dennis already has his eyes closed, but his nostrils are flared and white.
Now you know that the free champagne is not a luxury, but a necessity. Economy Class starts to sound good.
The boys begin to buck in the seats ahead of you, and Mommy is not pleased. As the flight crew asks for everyone to be seated she is still up, hovering over them, counting down. Dennis pretends to sleep as Mommy gets her LV bag down from the overhead compartment three more times before the flight attendant pleads for her to sit down.
Mommy shakes her head in disgust at Dennis as she buckles the belt over impractically white trousers.
At 10,000 feet Dennis revives and peeks out of his cocoon. After his first in-flight cocktail he begins an epic bout of small talk with you to spite his wife across the aisle. In front of you the boys spar like evil child hybrids of Ralph Lauren models and gladiators.
"DiNofrio's, that's the Italian place we liked," Dennis helpfully recommends, "Or was it DiGiorno's, no, that can't be it, DiMarios? I had the tortellini. Or was it the ravioli?"
You haven't even had time to crack open your tabloids, and you've given up hope of watching any movies as Dennis recounts every family vacation he's taken in the past five years.
"Was this before your boys turned evil?" you want to ask. "Or before you began ignoring your wife?"
You glance over at Mommy, who is on her third Chardonnay and has placed a pill bottle on her tray table as a provocation. Once the Ambien or the Xanax or the Valium is swallowed, it is Dennis who will have to hover over and cajole their offspring.
As dinner is served, you finally resign yourself fully to the conversation with Dennis. At least it's nice to have someone to chat with while eating, but just as you begin to tell him about your own travel plans, he says, "Well, I don't want to disturb you." What, by listening? And he places his Bose headphones over his ears, shutting out the noisy, conflictual, demanding world around him.
You start to wish Mommy would take her medication as she gets up again to bargain with the boys who could use a tranquilizer themselves.
Finally you recline your seat and reflect on your plane yoga retreat gone awry. You haven't hydrated or relaxed or stretched. In fact, you have a kink in your neck from the awkward angle you were nodding at Dennis's small talk monologue. Well, at least now you're going to sleep. The lights have been switched off, and you look at the people around you, some nestled asleep, others lulled by flashing screens. It feels like nap time in kindergarten, being surrounded by all these other resting bodies. Still strangers, but now so intimately arranged.
You put your eye mask on and your ear plugs in and strap your belt over your blanket and feel just as properly cocooned as Dennis. In the dark quiet you feel almost safe at the epicenter of this odd triangle of family tension. You don't sleep, but are elsewhere, carried by engine hum and cold air. Stuffed into a stupor. But at the very moment that your brain rolls over into a deeper dive you feel a pointed finger pressing your shoulder like an elevator button.
"Excuse me, could you please wake him up." Mommy asks you.
You don't have Dennis's power of pretend-sleep, but you still feign incomprehension. "Sorry?"
"Could you please wake him up." She points to the doughy sleep face of Dennis.
With her improbable white pants and tight bun and her Chardonnay slur, Mommy is scary, so you comply.
"Sir, your wife needs you."
"Your daughter is cold!" she proclaims.
"So get her a blanket."
"Can't. You. See. She. Already. Has. A. Blanket."
Dennis sighs, "So get her another blanket."
"Genius! Why didn't I think of that! I ASKED for another blanket, but the stewardesssss won't give her one! And they won't turn down the A/C!"
Dennis repositions his mask over his eyes and curls away, toward the window. You are now Dennis's replacement.
"Can you believe this? We pay thousands of dollars for Business Class and my poor Bianca is frozen. Frozen!"
You glance over at Bianca who is sleeping soundly.
Mommy stabs at the flight attendant call button again.
When he is halfway down the aisle, Mommy says, "This is ridiculous!" You also look pleadingly at the attendant. By God, do what this woman asks.
"Ma'am, we already told you that we were trying to locate another blanket."
"Well, I should hope so. And, I'd like another Chardonnay."
With her three children sleeping around her and her Chardonnay on its way, Mommy seems to relax a little and turns your way. You immediately put your eye mask back on, but lie perfectly straight. If you curl right, your movement might look like you're essentially spooning Dennis. If you curl left, your face is too vulnerable to Mommy's stares or pokes.
Hours pass which feel like days. Sleep doesn't come. You watch two Rom-Coms that make your Beach Bodies magazines look like high art. Across the aisle Mommy is wearing Chanel sunglasses in lieu of an eye mask. Her hand rests protectively on Bianca's presumably freezing body, now under two plane blankets.
In the morning, which is the middle of the night to you, the lights go on. Nap time ends abruptly, cruelly, and the cabin is grumpy and stinky. Mommy and the children continue to sleep, but Dennis looks chipper and orders a brick-like omelet when breakfast is offered. You're barely conscious when the small talk resumes. "The golf tournament doesn't start until Tuesday, so we got tickets to Wicked tonight." Dennis doesn't care what Mommy and her pointing fingers have done during the night, so you don't feel obligated to nod this time. You busy yourself stuffing your bloated feet into loafers that were roomy yesterday but now feel two sizes too small around your salt-gorged toes. You're parched and sweaty and dirty, but you've almost made it.
When you land, you stand up immediately, determined to sprint to Immigration, away from the family, but sadly realize you have to take a shuttle from the plane to the terminal. You can't escape them yet, and you file onto the airport bus. Mommy, still wearing her Chanel shades, looks hungover, but oddly unrumpled as she clings to one of the poles on the bus. Fresh Dennis is busy organizing their passports. As the shuttle lurches forward, little Bianca raises her face to Mommy, "Where's Lola?"
"Oh my god. Dennis! Where is Lola?"
"Lola! Bianca's doll!"
"Why would I have it?"
"It's on the plane! Dennis, make them turn the shuttle around!"
The other travelers shoot Dennis and Mommy threatening glances and Dennis shrugs. Bianca starts to cry, "Lola!" Finally, Dennis, having done mental calculations about the torture of a vacation spent Lola-less, starts negotiating with the shuttle driver.
By the time you spot the family at Baggage Claim, Bianca and Lola have been reunited, and Mommy looks grateful. Dennis must have come through in the end. Did he bribe the shuttle driver? The boys have run themselves ragged on the plane and they look like listless devils. As you roll past with your luggage, the family smiles warmly at you and waves. "Have a great vacation!" they say to their human buffer, their tired casualty of common marital discord.